“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

22 July 2014

A cynic’s guide to Labour’s NEC elections

Despite the title ‘cynic’s guide’ I am not really a cynic – indeed I rather like being led astray by great rhetoric and romantic dreams in my politics. There is a place for emotion, passion, and being inspired – an important place too. 

Alas, the elections for Labour’s governing body the NEC (National Executive Committee) is not that place. It is a place where cynicism is more at play, almost necessarily, and the candidate statements offer plenty of insight into how Labour reproduces itself. So a bit of cynicism in looking at them is more than merited. Whether the setting of eleven that was recorded recently on my cynic-o-meter is merited I am not so sure, but there it is.

I am no Labour insider so what you are going to get is not an insider’s view, but rather how these elections and these candidates appear to me in my rather wary, grumpy, half-ignorant and sometimes rather angry state of being when it comes to internal Labour processes.

Probably like most members I have little idea what I am meant to be voting for.

By actually paying attention and checking out what is going on (which most probably don’t do), I likely have a better idea than most, but that doesn’t give me much of an idea. These are elections which take place without much in the way of public debate, visibility and accountability: a bit like a democratic political system without a civil society, so that only power brokers and elite members have much of a clue what the government is up to and what different candidates stand for behind the rhetoric.

This is understandable to an extent. As an institution, the Labour Party is unlikely to make public detailed minutes describing accurately what happens in NEC meetings. That would offer plenty of ammunition for its political opponents – though whether the angry arguments or interminable waffle would create a worse impression for readers is a matter for debate. Political parties need to have arguments within themselves, and some of these arguments need to be carried out without the media having a grandstand seat.

Nevertheless, this creates a problem when it comes to these elections.

What me as a semi-ignorant outsider sees is the same bunch of names that I see each year in the same NEC literature, of people who are almost entirely out of sight the rest of the time. There are exceptions. Ken Livingstone crops up once again. I am familiar with Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter and a few others from Twitter and the NEC reports they have produced. But I have little or no idea what they have argued for and against on the NEC, and indeed even what decisions have been made by the NEC. There is little responsibility and accountability going on here, which leaves the likes of me lying prey to a few hundred words of candidate statements and the machinations of Labour’s powerful interest groups in providing various forms of backing to their favoured candidates.

I have been a critic of the Labour Women’s Network, but its approach of asking candidates to commit to support continuing the practice of All Women’s Shortlists for Parliamentary candidate selection after the forthcoming General Election in May 2015 brings some welcome transparency to candidates’ views on a contentious and important issue. We could do with some more of that.

But anyway, it's time for the (hopefully) fun bit and my lazy, half-ignorant, barely-researched thoughts on the candidates based on their statements and sparse existing knowledge, i.e. the sort of thing I expect most voters will be basing their decisions on (with due recognition that my views are probably worlds away from the average Labour member’s).

Luke Akehurst

A decent, hard-working campaigner who produced NEC reports before he was voted off. Generally sensible left-of-centre politics, but much of his candidate statement sets off Labour language klaxons in my head: talking of “defending members’ democratic rights” while not mentioning his steadfast support of the central imposition of All-Women Shortlists. “A strong record of fairness” is meaningless unless one of ‘unfairness’ was a viable alternative. “Independent-minded”? Not sure of that. But seemingly a good egg.

Johanna Baxter

Well-liked, makes good use of her effective slogan ‘Putting Members First’ and indeed does get around the country visiting lots of Constituency Labour Parties so deserves the oft-used moniker ‘hard-working’. Of course putting all members first equally is impossible, however much you are into equality, so some members are more equal than others - for her, female ones, in her support for female favouritism and exclusivity in the party. Lots of meaningless talk of ‘fairness’ in her statement, but good focus on employment rights and keeping the UK together.

Ann Black

Has the most nominations from constituency parties as I believe she does in other years, but I have little awareness of who she is and what she is about. Statement saying people hate austerity suggests she is of the old left, and this confirmed by her presence on the lefty slate with Red Ken and others. Plays to the lefty crowd blaming Tories, UKIP and the media for dividing people, then talking of all the money we should start spending on being nice to everyone. Little idea where she would stand on Labour’s internal processes [by the way my short submission to the Collins Review can be viewed here].

Crispin Flintoff

A new name for me though I am familiar with his organisation Stand Up For Labour, albeit purely from Twitter. One of the more interesting candidates, with what seems to be a genuine focus on building up the grassroots. Labour’s reflex instinct is central command and control, and we could do with some different voices in opening us up and making us more appealing as an organisation. Flintoff plans to help do this by kicking the party into being a bit more fun and engaging, but he says little else at least in his statement.

Ken Livingstone

Red Ken himself: still going, though seems to have rather less nominations than I remember he used to get. His statement is a reminder of the qualities on policy and detail that made him a generally excellent Mayor of London, rather than the divisive, closed-minded character that lost successive elections to the Tory Boris Johnson in a Labour city (memories are fresh of voters on the doorstep saying: “I’m Labour but I won’t vote for Ken”). Lots of interesting ideas for a Labour government to implement, but nothing about the party. A practised exponent on machine politics and sectarian ethnic politics – which counts against him in my eyes.

Florence Nosegbe

Seems pleasant enough. Scores highly in Labour top trumps as a black woman and is backed by the former New Labour pressure group Progress, but has relatively few nominations. A bland, generic statement saying how nice and good it would be if we did lots of nice and good things. Gets a bit political saying we must challenge UKIP “lies” and not “pander” on immigration. “A track record of engaging underrepresented groups, including young people, BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] groups and working class members” unfortunately sets Labour interest group sirens off in my head and doesn’t tell us how well she did at this. Being pro-immigration and pro-BAME favouritism is unlikely to please working class people who lose out materially and existentially from these things.

Kate Osamor

Sorry to mention race and gender again (personally I wish we were virtually colour-blind and comfortable with gender differences), but this is a crucial aspect of Labour’s internal politics. Osamor also scores highly here, but has more nominations than Nosegbe and is on the same slate with old left types like Livingstone and Ann Black. A reasonably nice, well-written statement which speaks to the left crowd and tells the folks what they want to hear: opposing Tories on war for example, and “challenging UKIP’s scapegoating campaign”.

Kevin Peel

A reasonably prominent LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Labour activist who has secured Progress’ second nomination along with Nosegbe. I hope I am wrong but this suggests to me an effort by Progress to reach out beyond New Labour roots to Labour’s other powerful interest groups. As an organisation Progress is widely loathed by the unions, so for the moment that leaves the identity politics groups based around gender, race and sexuality. Peel seems like a decent, sensible bloke, with decent, sensible ideas, but he doesn’t seem to be someone who will challenge Labour group-think. I think these identity politics narratives have largely exhausted themselves for being won, but he wants to press on.

Ellie Reeves

I’m familiar with Reeves mostly from her presence cheerfully and effectively chairing proceedings at Labour conference. She seems like a good, sensible sort. Me being me though, I don’t much like the heading ‘My values’ followed by a bunch of stuff which isn’t values, but favoured policies – a recurring problem in Labour politics where ‘Labour values’ are often trumpeted and boasted about without being known. A cap on spending for selections is her internal politics proposal. Otherwise there is little to get your teeth into, which is probably part of the point of these things.

Christine Shawcroft

Familiar from her repeated presence on the lefty slate for NEC elections but otherwise I know nothing about her. Gets stuck in to her statement with an immediate attack on ‘austerity’ as an election-loser, despite all the polling evidence suggesting otherwise (not that I am in favour of ‘austerity’, but just saying). Lots of left crowd-pleasing policy stuff – cancelling Trident, abolishing the Bedroom Tax, nationalising privatised services. And – controversy klaxon! She’s against the Collins Report. Been on the NEC and National Policy Forum for 15 years so has clearly been doing something right.

Peter Wheeler

Another one for whom I have little or no knowledge except familiarity with the name, and often in elections like this one, that is enough. First priorities to win the Scottish Referendum and the election. Says: “We need to dramatically step up our game” – so someone who seems to be prepared to speak truth to power. I’m also liking his talk of targeting working class communities that feel abandoned by politicians: this suggests a resistance to standard liberal-left causes like the universal – and absurd – embrace of immigration. Simple message and straight to the point, but little in the way of detail.

Darren Williams

Comes straight out firing old left bullets – “a vision of hope for a clear alternative to austerity”, praising Ed Miliband’s steps to the left and criticising him for conceding too much on welfare, immigration and crime (does he really want more of each?). Also wants re-nationalisation, scrap Trident, tackle climate change (I’d agree on that one, with bells on), more democracy and transparency in the party (good – but not sure how that would work with the unions).

Peter Willsman

A nicely-written statement, which is something I appreciate. Another on the lefty slate; comes out with a conventional list of good things he would like and probably so would us all. Commits to write reports on NEC meetings and get around to local parties. Loads of experience, but little impression of where he sits on internal issues here.

So how have I voted?

Well, I decided this was not an election I really wanted to participate in. Few candidates impressed me with their statements. I found in them rather too much doublespeak, telling activists what they want to hear, general confusion and incoherence in use of language and a lack of open, honest declarations of what this election is all about and what the candidates stand for in it. This is understandable and I’m not condemning anyone for it. I am probably too demanding, but on the balance I would rather seek high standards than be happy with mediocrity and confusion.

So I’m afraid I tore up my ballot paper and threw it into the recycling. I am making something of a habit of this sort of thing when it comes to Labour’s internal processes. It would be good if we could improve these processes. The NEC is the way to go about it, but these elections only seem to offer more of the same.

15 July 2014

Labour’s infrastructure commission would be a Treasury-controlled monster

At first sight, Labour’s proposed National Infrastructure Commission seems like another example of politicians lacking in confidence, giving away their democratic powers to unelected ‘experts’ in unaccountable quangoes; taking the democracy out of politics; depoliticisation as authoritarianism.

There is perhaps a little bit of truth in that, at least in presentational terms– through the cult of the ‘independent’, ‘impartial’, ‘expert’, taking an apparently neutral approach to political decision-making.

But the handover of power proposed by Sir John Armitt in his Draft Infrastructure Bill for Labour – backed by Ed Miliband – isn’t so much out of the Whitehall jungle as straight into the arms of its big beast: the Treasury. The Commission would be answerable to the Treasury, appointed (mostly) by the Treasury, told what to focus on by the Treasury, and its plans presented by the Treasury in a form decided by the Treasury.

Its headline role would be to carry out a big assessment of Britain’s ‘need’ for national infrastructure every ten years, looking at the next 25-30 years, identifying areas for targeted investment. And the ‘need’ would be to (a) support long term economic growth in the UK; and (b) maintain the UK’s international competitiveness amongst the G20 nations, both over the following 25-30 years and in the more immediate 5-10 years.”

In other words, this is about what the Tories rather embarrassingly call the ‘Global Race’; keeping up with the Mittals, Li’s and Carlos Slims.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of support from the infrastructure industry, and also from some politicians.

John Woodcock, the Labour MP and chair of the former New Labour pressure group Progress, says it “could turn out to be the defining achievement of the next Labour government” and “our equivalent of Bank of England independence.” He adds: This bold move from Ed Miliband to protect critically important infrastructure decisions from the damaging uncertainty of Westminster politics is essential to tackle the terrible British tradition of relying on short-termism and half-measures in planning energy, housing, transport and other infrastructure areas.”

This rather sets the alarm bells ringing about righteously removing important political decisions from the ‘damaging uncertainty’ of our...democracy, but he does have a point in the need for long-term strategic planning when it comes to infrastructure. Also, the Commission wouldn’t be a completely unaccountable, undemocratic quango as Woodcock makes it sound. The House of Commons would have to vote on Commission plans and amend them before they go to government departments for detailed planning.

Nevertheless there is plenty of potential for this creature of Treasury power to become a monster. Under the Armitt proposals, the Commission would prepare an Annual Report making judgements of whether government departments are doing their jobs well enough, and also pronouncing on the state of the regulatory environment.  In other words – providing an alternative government within government, with its roots in the Treasury

As Dan Hodges has quoted an Ed Miliband supporter saying, the Commission is “a Gordon Brown policy... not an Ed Miliband policy”. It was Ed Balls who commissioned the Armitt report, and Armitt is keen to gain support from the government benches for his ideas. You would imagine George Osborne licking his lips if he plans on staying in the Treasury for a while.

But there is something much bigger missing from the National Infrastructure Commission idea, which is any feeling for the land and what we plan to do (or not do) with it. England is now Europe’s most densely-populated country, and with its population set to rise further, the pressures on land are only set to increase. Big ticket infrastructure projects are only one source of that pressure; and the work of a National Infrastructure Commission would only increase the intensity of that pressure.

It reminds me of a lovely passage in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s diaries in which he attends an IPPR seminar on airport expansion at which a London Chamber of Commerce 'android' says: "We can't afford to opt out of the 21st Century” - a sentiment which Tony Blair among others has echoed lately. Mullin's pithy response was, "At this rate the 21st Century won't be worth living in."

A central strategy for infrastructure isn’t a bad idea, but first we should form a clear idea of what we want to do with our land, and what sort of country we want to live in. That is surely a task for democratic politics, not for a bunch of infrastructure experts under Treasury control.

6 July 2014

Owen Jones: playing to the crowd

A few days ago I was pointed to an article by Owen Jones about ‘young men in crisis’.  It is a reasonably sensible piece for the most part, though doesn’t look beyond more spending on mental health as a solution. What really caught my attention though was this little sentence, squeezed down in the meat of the article:

Even though the women's and LGBT movements have changed what it is to be a man for the better, men are still keeping quiet as their mental health is battered by an ever more insecure world.”

Owen Jones
[For those unfamiliar with the jargon of the organised left, ‘LGBT’ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender]

Now we can’t expect writers to fully justify everything they say, but this aside that the women's and LGBT movements have changed what it is to be a man for the better set my alarm bells ringing. It’s a pretty big thing to say, let alone throw out as an aside that doesn’t need justification or evidence.

Let’s unpick the statement.

The women’s and LGBT movements have changed...’ means agency, so that actions of these organised women’s and LGBT movements have had an effect. ‘What it means to be a man’ is a lot more difficult to conceive of; even more so to define, and even more so to track change. That is not to deny changes in meaning don’t happen – they clearly do – but even getting a handle on what you’re talking about is difficult enough, let alone tracking from cause to effect. Then ‘for the better’ tells us that this meaning of manhood which is opaque at best to us has been changed for the better by the actions of these groups: groups that politicise women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people – but not men (unless they are of the correct sexuality).

Owen Jones, who was voted as Britain’s most influential left-wing thinker of 2013, participates actively in these groups, and also has form for intervening in male group politics (to the extent that they exist).

Check out for example this widely retweeted and liked social media post about International Men’s Day (IMD) (whose organisers say they are trying to promote fatherhood and better male role models):

The male ‘crisis’ that Jones identifies in his article isn’t a million miles away from what the IMD bods are looking to address. Yet we can see that this effort to politicise men and boys as a group gets an unequivocal thumbs-down from him – because he sees them as having far too much power already.

So the message here is that men cannot be helped by politicising men as a group, but we can be confident that they have already been helped by politicising women and also politicising homosexual, bisexual and transgender men (but specifically not heterosexual men). By this reasoning the men’s crisis that Jones talks about would surely be alleviated by a bit more enthusiastic denigration of men as a political group as he does in his tweet.

It goes without saying that this makes no sense. Politicising women and LGBT sexuality has certainly made many of us question our assumptions and prejudices and therefore our behaviour, over a long period of time – but I would like to see arguments or evidence for any other positive effects on men specifically (excepting perhaps those who have sex with other men).

This brings to my mind Lord Leveson’s delicious phrase when he presented his report on the British media, that newspapers shouldn’t be able to “mark their own homework”. Jones as a member of these political movements seems to be marking their homework, and marking it mightily high despite them not having handed it in.

On Twitter I challenged Jones to make an argument or present some evidence for this bizarre claim, but got only this rather sour response (after a few others had joined in for a short conversation). [I don't object to feminism by the way, but I do have serious problems with the form which has become dominant, as explained here]

So we seem to be left with this free-floating assumption that women’s and LGBT movements only help men, even though they are dedicated to helping women and LGBT people, and even when they actively denigrate the politicisation of men (indeed, it seems, particularly when they denigrate attempts to politicise men).

As I said before, we cannot expect statements like these to be justified and supported with evidence every time they are made, but it seems to me that this claim from Jones barely even qualifies as an opinion.

I think it is more about politics: talking about men and men’s concerns but reassuring one’s own tribal group that they have nothing to do with the problems, and indeed are helping to alleviate them. It is about playing to the crowd: not of the population as a whole but of the left, and specifically of the powerful feminist and sexuality-based groups.

And, we must say, Owen Jones is mightily good at doing that.

19 June 2014

Why the left is in such a muddle over immigration

The liberal-left is in a terrible muddle over immigration at the moment largely because of a pervasive and highly-judgemental rationalism which completely fails to engage with people as they are.

This rather arrogant, dogmatic form of rationalism assumes that who we are, our opinions and our feelings, are all derived from thought, reflection, decisions and judgements.

Hence the discomfort someone might be feeling about lots of outsiders moving into their neighbourhood is viewed as being derived from a thought and ultimately a judgement that outsiders, or certain types of outsiders, are bad by definition.

In this way this sort of rationalism takes theoretical, universalistic thinking as primary to human existence, and assumes we are formed and come to be who we are primarily by thinking and judgements made from thinking. So, we would assume the person who is discomforted by lots of outsiders moving in to their area has done some thinking and concluded that outsiders are bad. On this basis we could reasonably assume that he or she is a racist or a xenophobe, and might also reasonably assume that those feelings of discomfort they have are a natural result of them being a racist or a xenophobe. We could reasonably say they are wrong both in factual and in moral terms and seek to attack and suppress them and their views.

This is quite a jump, from the person in question feeling discomforted by immigration to seeing them as a racist who is worth attacking.

This leap is made possible by an abstraction of the feeling, from the actual world of experience in which it arose to a universalistic ideological dimension – the dimension of high political theory. A personal resistance to a specific example of immigration is therefore taken by this sort of rationalism as a universal resistance to immigration and therefore also to immigrants – universalising the particular in a way customary to all ideologies.

I presented this as a hypothetical case, but anyone familiar with the ways of the liberal-left should be familiar with this train of thought. It is a startlingly judgemental way of looking at people, not least in this case because the person in question has not actually expressed any racist views. We know however that this will not stop them being accused directly or indirectly of being a racist, both from the left and by ex-New Labour types and Liberal Democrats.

This position is another example of the sort of ideological thinking I have been exploring a lot on this blog. It relies on a basic prejudice grounded in the assumption that just by feeling uncomfortable about incomings, this person’s world and place in the world can be understood fundamentally and can therefore be judged and pronounced upon freely and confidently.

In this way the immigrationist ideologue will say that the person feeling uncomfortable is ‘wrong’, perhaps because they ‘don’t understand the facts’, while at the same time not maintaining even a bare acquaintance with that person’s life experience – an irony they will either gloss over or be completely unaware of.

Unfortunately this rather authoritarian type of rationalism is widespread across the whole liberal-left in Britain, including Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens. I would go as far as to say it is the dominant way of thinking on the liberal-left today; it is something of a default position to fall back on and gather around in order to reassert our group bonds.

Thankfully, this tendency is being challenged by braver and more reflective types like Jon Cruddas, Rachel Reeves and John Denham, who know that people who are concerned about immigration are not all nasty racists who deserve to be suppressed and written off.  But they do not have the ready language and easy arguments to fall back on that the dominant rationalist view does: theirs are relatively new and unfamiliar arguments that do not tell people what they want to hear, and do not hold ready appeal to mainstream left-wing activists and true believers.

Even though Cruddas and Reeves are both important members of the Shadow Cabinet with access to the leader, in everyday liberal political-media discourse they are insurgents, barely chipping away at the consensus view. In their resolution not to dismiss the hypothetical person in this article, they are rather lonely on the left. The left’s dominant tribes do not like their message, and are not afraid to say so. Our old habits of denunciation remain very much intact for those who stray from the straight and rightful path.

With a General Election just a year away and the crucial issue of immigration not resolved in anything near a clear fashion by Labour, it makes for quite a muddle.